Mercer University students will have a surprise waiting for them when they come back from winter break on Monday -- a bus provided by the Macon Transit Authority.
The bus will replace the NewTown Macon trolley, a bus fashioned to look like an old-fashioned streetcar, that has shuttled students from campus to downtown Macon and the Pio Nono Avenue Kroger since 2001.
Mercer has been looking to replace the trolley, which is 15 years old, since the beginning of this school year, said Victoria Conley, Mercer’s Student Government Association vice president.
“Dean (of Students Doug) Pearson and I realized that the trolleys were going to be expiring soon because they were getting old,” Conley said. “We didn’t want to get rid of the shuttle because we still wanted to provide a safe way for students to get to and from downtown.”
The downtown trolley ran Wednesdays through Sundays from 7 p.m. to 3 a.m., providing transportation that was particularly important for students who had been drinking at downtown bars.
Rather than rely on NewTown to replace the aging trolley, Mercer officials decided to contract with the Macon Transit Authority to provide similar shuttle bus service at a slightly higher cost than the trolley. This option offered “all of the services the trolley provides and even a few more,” Conley said.
Mercer will pay the Macon Transit Authority an hourly rate of $59.90 for use of the shuttle bus. That will add up to about $30,000 for the first semester of use, said Rick Jones, general manager and CEO for the Macon Transit Authority.
The service is free for students.
While the trolley was restricted from driving on highways, the Macon Transit Authority bus isn’t, making more destinations available for students.
“We decided to provide a route to Zebulon (Road), which has a lot more than just a grocery store. It has a Kroger, a Wal-Mart. It has several restaurants and even a movie theater,” Conley said.
The shuttle service’s core campus to downtown route will remain. That’s a relief to NewTown Macon CEO Josh Rogers, who initiated the program when he was a Mercer student to “encourage a better connection between campus and downtown,” he said.
“I think starting the trolley route contributed in a small way to building the affection and connection between Mercer’s campus and downtown,” Rogers said.
Macon Transit Authority Operations Manager Jade Daniels said the authority will provide a full-sized public transit bus that will reflect a Mercer theme.
“So you’re going to see a bus running around here with a Mercer bear face on it and the Mercer logo and everything,” she said.
The bus will seat 35 passengers and have standing room for more. The bus’s capacity will help it stay on schedule on busy evening runs, said Daniels, who noted that NewTown Macon had asked the transit authority to consider taking over the service.
“We agreed, as we considered that service as a mirror of the service we currently provide,” she said.
“Public transportation, whether it be educational, institutional or the public as a whole should be provided by the Macon Transit Authority.”
Fans of the antique-looking trolleys may still see them on the streets. NewTown Macon is “hopeful we can keep them available for special event rentals,” Rogers said.
The Center of Collaborative Journalism comprises Mercer University’s journalism and media studies program, The Telegraph and Georgia Public Broadcasting.